There’s a chance you’ve marveled at Nick Shea’s talent before without even knowing it was him. The 20-year-old East Boston rapper used to spend his days beside the T as a part of the Wreck Shop Movement’s Subway Cipher. Then, he moved over to the Common, where he performed freestyles to passersby. Shea’s got a message for the people, so he delivers it to them directly, free of cost.
Though he’s technically not yet an adult, Shea is wise beyond his years. During the daytime, he works in art. He just accepted a position as a teaching artist at the Institute of Contemporary Art, where he will teach writing and poetry to students at an afterschool program there and at various high schools in nearby neighborhoods. After hours, he hones his skills as a hip-hop artist: as the man writing the words, producing the beats, and drawing the art. He released his debut album, All We Need Is Two Minutes, and he’s going out of his way to make sure CD copies of it are signed and hand-packaged. Given what a labor of love rapping is for Shea, it makes sense his first proper album is lovingly crafted. After all, this has been a long time coming.
Nick Shea got his start when he was 14 years old. During ninth grade, he would freestyle at the bus stop, drum up ideas at school, and then rush home afterward to make beats in his room. Eventually, his mother directed him toward Zumix, an after-school nonprofit centered around music as an outlet for the East Boston youth. He joined when he was 15 years old. Mere days into his classes there, he debuted an original song in public for the first time.
“I wrote a song that had no point—it was just words that rhymed, really—and I was shaking the whole time I read it off a piece of paper. Corey [DePina], the songwriting and performance teacher, told me, ‘That’s all over the place, but I love it and we can work on it together,’” says Shea. “Zumix was a place where if I wrote a song about cupcakes, they would push me to make that the greatest cupcake song ever. Being able to go there really helped me find my own voice and understand that my voice is valid, so that if I want to write about a song about my dog, that’s as valid as writing a song about a breakup or politics.”
There’s a slew of early demos and EPs that prefaced All We Need, but Shea wants to sweep them under the rug. Do some digging online, though, and they serve as nothing short of a flowchart, a direct way to trace his influences. Shea is indebted to old-school greats like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and Atmosphere. They’re artists who, in his eyes, pushed the virtues of knowing yourself so that “goofy” rap could stand tall. Come the tail end of his senior year, he created an 18-track mixtape with producer Sun E-D. It was formative for his songwriting process, not only in helping him understand collaboration but showing him the ropes to creating original backing tracks.
Instead of scouring the depths of YouTube on the regular, Nick Shea gets his elbows dirty in the dust of local record stores. He dug through vinyl and picked up discarded albums on the street for All We Need. The sampled audio is addictive, from a cappella doo-wop groups to hardcore funk and jazz, and he turns it into his own by recording various instruments over it. “Livin’ On” features thick, gelatinous bass. “Mouth Music” sees Shea yelping and tapping his mouth for a bare-bones, all-vocal beat. “Float Away,” a track featuring Sway Casey, samples a piano part hidden nearly an hour into a Thelonious Monk record from the ’60s.
“As soon as I heard that ding, I knew I had to use it,” Shea says of the Monk sample. “I try to wait and dig deeper into records like that, to avoid the obvious samples that start off a track. That includes using things like a Sesame Street record that no one would ever want. It’s fun and fulfilling to do, like making a collage of sorts. One night, I went to Cheapo Records expecting to stop in for a minute and buy one record, but I bought 80 dollars’ worth of records—like what on earth am I doing?—but it was worth it.”
That old-school sound threads itself through Shea’s artwork. Every release sees one of his iconic humans involved in the imagery. They’re blobbish stick figures that all share the same smile, all rounded hands and affable energy that become relatable in their simplicity, like a spinoff of A Tribe Called Quest’s use of Keith Haring’s work. Shea started drawing the figures because he was bored on the T and took to sketching strangers across from him. To work quicker, he began giving everyone the same face to better catch their specific poses: two dots for eyes; a squiggly, long u-shaped nose; and a contented grin. He sees it as a way to spread positivity; hence, he uses one of their grinning faces instead of a picture of himself to promote his work.
Everything else in Shea’s music isn’t as straightforward. Sure, “I’ll Be Up” is about one relationship where he was told he wasn’t good enough, and that’s easy to decode. While “Better Than This” seems to be written from the perspective of someone reviewing a negative relationship, according to Shea, it’s just personification. He actually wrote it about a firsthand experience with on-and-off depression. Shea decided to turn it into a character, using the song’s chorus—“I don’t want to spend my life with you / so I say / but I still find myself coming back to you each day / now what does that say?”—as a way to talk about depression’s grasp on emotional and mental well-being.
“I wrote that chorus in high school, but it took me so long to figure out how to write about it in a way that made sense,” he says. “Then, after three years, I was able to write what I felt about it in barely 10 minutes. It felt like I finally found the strength to write it. It’s weird sharing that side of yourself. At the end of the day, I don’t care how these songs sound to other people. It’s about much more. What do these songs mean to me? What does it mean to get them off of my chest? How does it feel to perform them? These are questions you have to ask yourself.”
That’s where Nick Shea finds himself now: gearing up to perform this material live. He’s learned the importance of going out, meeting people, and showing them what he’s capable of. While he may not be doing Subway Cipher much anymore, he’s pushing himself to perform in front of larger groups. He’s planning a record release show for All We Need Is Two Minutes. He’s working on a new album with Sway Casey. He wants to do more, and, given that his passion won’t shift out of high gear anytime soon, it’s best to start watching for his name.
“I’ve learned to express myself fully and not feel like I need to hold up to a certain standard of what hip-hop is, a writer is, or a male is,” says Shea. “It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to talk about hurt feelings. It’s also okay to act like a top dog braggadocious rapper. Whatever the feeling is, you have to know there isn’t one feeling you’re supposed to [be] feeling. Everything you feel is valid. Learning to share that, specifically with face-to-face response, has helped me, and I’ve felt a lot more productive in doing so, too.”
Nick Shea’s new album, All We Need Is Two Minutes, is out now via Bandcamp.